Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Time Traveller's Plank

Doctor Who
The Girl In The Fireplace
Series Two, Episode Four

The Girl In The Fireplace is a love story for the Doctor, and there have hardly been any of those.  Why is that?  Well, School Reunion explained quite eloquently that the Doctor lives longer than anyone else, so he doesn't feel he can ever stay attached.  And that's just his close friends: he's never around anyone else long enough for it to go anywhere.  He's still got a heart two, actually but those are the facts and "close friends" is the best he can do, if that.  It's The Curse Of The Time Lords.  He literally said so last week.

Steven Moffat's brilliant way round this is to ignore it and just have him fall in love anyway.  Uh.  It works for a lot of people, and it won a Hugo Award, but... no.  It doesn't work if you take the previous episode into account.  It doesn't work if you want to actually see any evidence of love on-screen.  It doesn't work if you watch these two characters alone in a room, supposedly being in love.  It's a to-the-point shopping list of Doesn't Work.

What does work is the time travel jiggery-pokery where the Doctor pops in and out of a person's life.  (See The Time Traveler's Wife, as Moffat so obviously has.)  After hearing the Doctor/human relationship put into words last week, here it's enacted on the screen, and it's like a point-by-point account of why he can't fall in love with a human.  Fair enough.  Except, d'oh!  It's inexplicably being used to make the opposite point.  The Doctor doesn't build a bond with this woman, he barely meets her at all.  And okay, there is such a thing as love at first sight, but this first sight happens when she's about seven years old.  Ick.

The main thing wrong with it is summed up by Rose: "Why her?"  Madame de Pompadour is one of the most accomplished women in history, okay, but none of those accomplishments are on the screen.  We're told she's great, but that's not the same as seeing it for ourselves.  What we do get is a stuffy, wooden, rather unremarkable aristo with a bit of a crush on her imaginary friend.  What, exactly, does the Doctor like about her?  He seems glad to have snogged a famous person, but then what?  There's no wit, no soul, no steel about her; all her womanly strength comes from depending on him.  She's not beguiling, she's not interesting, and (aside from being able to invert a mind-meld, just because), no match for him.  Come off it.  This is the woman who makes his hearts beat faster?  He had more chemistry with Queen Victoria.  He had more chemistry with Charles Dickens.

It doesn't help that Madame de Pompadour is played by Sophia Myles, who makes a bunch of clockwork robots look expressive by comparison.  Here is a woman who actually dated David Tennant, and yet their scenes together fizzle miserably.  Tennant, who played Casanova, and one episode ago communicated boundless love and affection for Sarah Jane with a couple of smiles.  It just ain't happening here.

Of course, the Doctor had years to form a bond with Sarah Jane, and so did we along with him.  There was a weight to School Reunion because of it.  You can't cram that kind of thing into 45 minutes.  You know all that not-seeing we're doing, of all Madame Pom-Pom's accomplishments?  The Doctor's not seeing them either.  Apart from a few scenes where we miss the tail-end, he knows this woman about as well as we do.  Oh, there's the I-think-he's-being-euphemistic-it's-too-subtle-to-be-sure "dancing", and more importantly the mind-meld (because apparently there weren't enough shortcuts in Doctor Who), but if their relationship's based on something that's impossible to interpret as an audience, then how the hell's it supposed to work as televised drama?

Nonetheless, Moffat insists in the clumsiest way possible that this is the real deal.  When the Doctor charges to Madame Pot Pourri's rescue, he's marooning Rose and Mickey on a dangerous spaceship in the future.  They're trapped forever, and he doesn't even mention it, presumably because he loves Madame What'shername so much he's willing to abandon his closest friend.  Even after what he said to her last week, about specifically not doing that.  Russell T Davies reportedly never edited Moffat's scripts, and dear God does that backfire here.  What happened to Rose's obvious annoyance that Mickey was joining the TARDIS crew?  Now they're thick as thieves.  Hello?  Is anybody screening this stuff?  Clearly not, as otherwise they'd have thrown out all that ridiculous "So lonely, lonely then and lonelier now, my lonely Doctor" twaddle.  Was there a scriptwriter's bonus if Steven Moffat used the word "lonely" in bulk?  (Besides which, if the Doctor's so lonely, what's with the conveyerbelt of bezzie mates he's had since 1963?  Yeah, they leave or they die in the end, but doesn't everyone who's ever lived have to deal with that as well?  And okay, the Time Lords are gone, but didn't he spend all of Classic Who avoiding them anyway?  I guess you really don't appreciate a thing until it's gone...)

Lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,
lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,
lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,
I sometimes wonder if this even is a love story.  Aside from his foolhardy rescue plan, the Doctor seems utterly blasé on all things Madame Diet Pepsi until the very end, when he receives the Big Letter Of Lonely and looks miserable about it.  He could just as easily be sad because he's lost a new friend a new just-a-friend – who was hoping to see the stars.  Well, couldn't he?  But this does nothing to dislodge the feeling that, no, that's what they're going for, it just isn't working.  (And Wikipedia informs me that Russell T Davies called it "a love story for the Doctor", so that's that, then.  I also now know the episode's working titles included Reinette And The Lonely Angel and Every Tick Of My Heart, and yes, you are supposed to read those without sicking on your lap.)

Okay, okay, enough about the love story.  What of the plot?  Clockwork robots are invading Madame Pompous Orc's history in order to steal her brain.  They want it to use as a computer, because their ship is lacking in parts and it's named after her and they are apparently deeply stupid.  The body-parts-as-spare-parts stuff is intensely creepy, but it's always disappointing meeting a baddie who does what they do because they're an idiot.  (Besides which, Moffat already did it in The Empty Child.)  Rose and Mickey have little to do other than witness the Doctor's tryst and react hardly at all.  Seriously – why isn't Rose crazy-jealous?  But I enjoyed them getting along for once, even if it does totally contradict the last episode.  Billie and Noel are good.  And I liked the horse.

This is one of those episodes that lives or dies by the idea at its heart, and it dies a strange, awkward death because of it.  Does Not Work.  So there.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Most Likely To Succeed

Doctor Who
School Reunion
Series Two, Episode Three

Oh boy, School Reunion.  This one's got "My Favourite" written all over it, in sparkly ink, surrounded by love-hearts. 

To be fair, any episode feauring Ye Olde Doctor Who characters is going to be a fan-favourite before it even gets off the drawing board.  The hard part is making it more than just a nostalgia trip and School Reunion does, skilfully using the past to help ground the show's present.

It gets off to a running start, instantly sparing us the usual "Step out of the TARDIS, run into trouble, flash the psychic paper" rigmorole.  Before the opening credits roll, we've already got an amazing villain Mr Finch, a headteacher with "sinister" ingrained in his walk, the way he smiles, even the way he hums and an amazing setup, with the Doctor as a schoolteacher.  Who wouldn't be hooked?  And then Sarah Jane Smith walks into the room.

"And, cut.  Okay Dave, you can stop now.  David?"
Younger viewers won't have a clue who she is, but that's okay.  It's perfectly obvious this person is important to the Doctor.  Well, I say perfectly obvious, but it's really David Tennant's expression that gets across all that history in an instant.  It's debateable whether this is magnificent acting or just what happens when fanboy meets fan-favourite, but either way, the look on his face is utterly genuine.

Before you know it, we're tackling one of those issues that should come up all the time in a long running show, but never does: what happens when he leaves you behind?  Never mind nostalgia – this is absolutely key character stuff, especially for someone as Doctor-obsessed as Rose.  So what about it?

As audience-members, we gloss over the chasm between the Doctor's life and that of his companions.  It's easy to assume, given that he travels in time and occasionally becomes someone else, that his companions are as timeless as the Doctor himself, all of them still there should he wish to pop back and see them.  But that's an illusion.  They age, he doesn't, and he'd rather not think about that, thankyouverymuch.  The script comes dangerously close to over-egging this, when the Doctor nearly uses the L word but-then-poignantly-doesn't, but apart from that it's perfectly put, brutally addressing a skeleton in the Doctor's closet and frankly, getting him bang to rights.

He doesn't come out of this in the best light, effectively using the Time War as an excuse even though that happened ages after he ditched Sarah.  And apart from a promise, there's nothing to say the same won't happen to Rose.  (If anything, her feelings for the Doctor might drive him away even faster.)  But, fair enough.  Why should all character development be of the fluffy and nice variety?  (In his defence, the Doctor did say goodbye to Sarah all those years ago, and quite poignantly too.  Perhaps she remembers it differently after obsessing for so long.)

All of this has a flipside, something that bothers me generally about New Who.  The Doctor's probably genuine when he says he assumed Sarah got on with her life.  Back in the day, companions actually had lives to get back to, learning from their time in the TARDIS and growing as a result.  Now, though?  Rose's life before You Know Who amounts to nothing much, the thought of leaving him is inconceivable, and if Sarah's anything to go by – good old, headstrong Sarah – the same is ultimately true of everyone he meets.  I'm not sure I buy that.  I certainly don't want to.

Either way, there's more than enough character development to be getting on with.  What about the actual episode – the plot, and all that jazz?  Well, the mysterious school (with creepy teachers and hypnotised students) is a bit more Demon Headmaster than Doctor Who, but given that it's a backdoor pilot for The Sarah Jane Adventures, the lighter tone seems appropriate.  The school's a nicely eerie setting, especially at night.  It's fun watching the Doctor as the leader of a "gang", sans all the smugness that made Boom Town so awkward.  But as for what the Krillitanes are actually up to... ye-eah, about that...

First, the good news.  Anthony Head is so relentlessly brilliant as Mr Finch that even when their plans make little sense, even when he makes little sense, it doesn't really matter.  Why, for instance, if all the other Krillitanes keep turning into bat-creatures does he stay as a human?  Because Anthony Head is more interesting than a CGI bat-creature, that's why.  I'm not going to quibble with a villain who brings out the best in David Tennant.  Finch brilliantly uses the Doctor's own crisis with Sarah to attempt to get him on-side, and their face-off at the swimming pool is an absolute showstopper, especially for the Tenth Doctor.  Gone is the New Earth shouting, AWOL the futile "Listen to me!" cries of Tooth And Claw – the Doctor here is fantastically restrained, and consequently at his best.  All the big-hitting emotional stuff is reserved for the scenes with Sarah, which lends this performance a lot of light and shade.  It's a joy to watch, and remains one of my favourites.

No smiley-face for you, Mr Nasty Krillitane Man!
But, okay, the plot's got some holes.  The Krillitanes evolve, right?  They cherry-pick "the best bits" from species the way human cultures steal words and customs.  But just because they've got big wings like a bat doesn't mean they're going to be susceptible to loud noises as well.  They're not bats.  Even if they were, why would they steal that bit of a bat?

Far more puzzling, though, that mysterious Krillitane oil.  In order to crack the "God code", they need children to type on a lot of computers.  (Just go with it.)  In order to get smart children for typing, they need a lot of food dipped in oil.  (They also use the kids for food.  Because... waste-not-want-not?)  This oil is part of them, from long ago when they looked different, and it handily makes kids smarter... for some reason.  But the Krillitanes have evolved so much that it also makes them explode if they touch it.  Uh huh.

Setting aside how massively dim it is revolving their entire plan around this stuff, and having huge leaky vats of it to hand (a Krillitane dies just lugging one through the kitchen!), why, besides supreme plot convenience, would it do that?  "Their own oil's toxic to them"?  As usual, a cursory one-sentence "explanation" that just states the silly bit as a fact, like how the sonic screwdriver is now easily foiled by "deadlocks".  Er, okay.  (Why would they bother deadlocking things?  Has news of the Doctor's irritating screwdriver traveled far enough that bad guys build in this random fail-safe, just in case?)

Like Father's Day, this is a case of the important stuff winning out over the, er, other stuff.  Yes, it would be better if the Krillitanes' plan made more sense, and if certain puzzling edits had not been made (such as a scene where a Krillitane dive-bombs the Doctor for no reason), which otherwise leave disjointed roadbumps in the pacing.  But what the episode is here to do, it does beautifully, and then some.  It's not just emotional for the Doctor and Sarah: it's important for Rose, and an absolute revelation for Mickey.  K9's got something to do for once.  As for Sarah Jane, the years melt away in an instant, helped nicely by Lis Sladen being completely fantastic.  Why yes, you can have your own series!

And you know how the Doctor's all with the light and shade this week?  Ditto the script.  Despite heavy emotional themes, this is very often one of the funniest episodes around.  Funny's good, as another Doctor once said.

With a knockout Doctor performance, a solid reason to bring back an old friend, a tissue of laughs and chills, and basically the best thing ever to happen to K9, who cares about a few poxy roadbumps?  Throw this one on the Classic pile and gather round it for warmth.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Queen Wolf

Doctor Who
Tooth And Claw
Series Two, Episode Two

Somewhere in the Doctor Who offices, there's a list of things the show must do every year, without fail.  On it you will find: travel to the past, meet a famous person, battle a supernatural monster, and this year, Queen Victoria + werewolf = Tooth And Claw.

It's solid.  The plot's efficient, the scares are effective, and there's loads to like.  And yet, I find myself thinking there's something lacking here.

It's certainly not the presentation.  Everything looks great, from the highland-approximating locations to the awesome CGI werewolf, and the story moves at a hell of a pace.  In his and Benjamin Cook's marvellous book The Writer's Tale, Russell T Davies used Tooth And Claw as an example of ruthless editing, and quite right: it's obviously been nipped and tucked to within an inch of its life.  The thing goes whoosh.

Nope, nothing horribly scarring here.
Even so, there's time to slow down and scare the pants off you.  In any werewolf story there's going to be a horrific transformation scene, and this one's eyebrow-raisingly gruesome for a family show.  The creature's subsequent attacks are shot with considerable attention to icky-noised detail, but all that's nothing to the moment when the survivors gather in a locked room, the music cuts away, and they just listen to the wolf outside, trying to find its way in.  Hooray!  They're being subtle!

Speaking of which, the performances are of an absurdly high standard this week.  Pauline Collins is the star, giving us a Queen Victoria who's equal parts grief and strength, but everyone else is right up there too.  There's the coldly determined Father Angelo, leading the wolf-worshipping Brethren; the guilt-ridden Sir Robert, who goes along with their plan to protect his wife; and the duty-bound Captain Reynolds, who tries too hard to laugh at Her Majesty's jokes.  Altogether, an embarrassment of actorly riches.  Even the werewolf's human counterpart, a nameless man played by Tom Smith, rocks your socks off just sitting there divulging his plans.  That stuff probably didn't scream "Brilliant" on the page, but on-screen it's an entirely different kettle of fish.

The plot doesn't exactly scream "Brilliant" either, but all the same it's a definite improvement.  The Brethren's trap for the Queen, itself containing a trap for the wolf, is all quite nicely worked out.  Well, apart from the silly bits: it's a bit stupid that they just waited around for Queen Vic to saunter in their direction once in a full moon, it's amazingly lucky they picked the one house designed by a guy with an anti-werewolf laser, and the wolf's crippling mistletoe allergy is both convenient and vague.  But what can I say?  It's quite coherent, and it's worlds better than the Random Plot Hole Generator seemingly used in most other episodes.

Overall, the production's close to faultless.  What really bugs me about this one is the stuff that comes as standard: the Doctor, and Rose, and the-Doctor-and-Rose.  It doesn't matter what other amazing stuff you've got in the mix if your heroes are setting the audience's teeth on edge.

To be fair, Rose has her moments.  Encouraging the servants to ignore the wolf and concentrate on escaping, then telling the Doctor off for being late, ought to top any companion-behaviour Wish List.  But the running joke of trying to get Queen Victoria to say "We are not amused" is a total own-goal.  It's not funny for the audience, no one on screen finds it funny, and even though Her Majesty chastises Rose for acting like a callous moron, and quite rightly, nothing comes of it.  We're right back in Callous Morontown by the end credits, as our gallant duo postulate that Queen Vic's probably a werewolf anyway.  What was the point?

"These are our 'respect for the dead' faces."
The Doctor seems to be right there with Rose in the callous moron stakes, and gets taken to task by the Queen, also to no avail.  I just don't get it  why make our two heroes the most annoying people in the episode?  Maybe one of them can be disconnected from all the, er, gritty realism, but isn't it the point of two characters, to balance it out?  As it is, they both learn nothing, ignore the telling off and go back to normal at the end.  In general, everyone else is thesping their brains out, leaving David's gen-you-wine Scots accent and Billie's the-audience-are-not-amused routine spluttering in the dust.

And that's just the major league irritating stuff.  Also annoying?  The Doctor, as well as starting a tradition where he screams at people to listen to him and they don't, keeps acting like a human.  So now he's a big fan of The Muppet Movie, plus Ian Dury & The Blockheads, and he jumps up and down and goes Eeeeee! when he meets a famous person or a werewolf?  Hrmph.  The Doctor works best when it's clear he's not from round here, and the closer he gets to acting like an ordinary bloke, albeit with psychic paper and a TARDIS, the further he gets from Planet Interesting.  (And as for the catty remark about Sir Robert having fun with a bunch of bald men while the wife's away, that's just about the unDoctorliest thing he's ever said.  What the hell?)

For all the bits that have been really well worked-out, some of it's just plain weird.  The opening scene with the Brethren storming Torchwood Castle is shot like a kung-fu movie from the '70s crossed with The Matrix, but aside from making me laugh, what's it actually there for?  They don't do anything like it again later on.  Best guess, it's there because it looks cool and starts the episode with a bang, but honestly, it's so bizarre (and that crash zoom is so funny) they might as well have saved the wire-fu budget for next series.  Some episode or other is bound to need the extra cash.

Perhaps weirdest of all, though, the Queen's telling off.  Now, I know they had it coming what with all the silly remarks, but what is she on about with their "terrible life", and the equally terrible conclusion that's bound to be the result of it?  What's so bad about travelling around and helping people?  What, besides a couple of bad jokes, did they actually do besides save her life and spare the entire British Empire a future that smelled of wet dog?  Take the Doctor out of the equation and you get exactly the same events, apart from one thing: Wolf 1, Queen 0.  The Doctor helps, simple as that.  I'm all for examining the show from another angle, but it does have to be one that makes sense.

"And it shall be called Torchwood,
and it shall be on BBC2 after the watershed,
and there shall be sex and swearwords and sex and..."
Her overreaction isn't just baffling why bother knighting them if you're going to banish them forever?  but it's a seriously clumsy bit of foreshadowing as well.  Why is the end drawing near?  'Cos someone they met who knows nothing about them randomly said so!  Altogether now: fin-ahhh-lee!  (And did I say foreshadowing?  Good, because coming soon, TORCHWOOD, yes, an organisation called TORCHWOOD will feature in the series finale, and DID I MENTION THERE'S A NEW SERIES COMING SOON AND IT'S ALSO CALLED TORCHWOOD?  If it were any more barefaced, Her Royal Highness would be wearing a John Barrowman T-shirt.)

There's a lot to recommend about Tooth And Claw, but the whole never feels like much more than the sum of its parts.  That, and it never truly escapes being "What famous person and monster shall we do this year?"  I'm probably old-fashioned, but I like a story to come from a more imaginative place than just filling in this year's blanks.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Skin Deep

Doctor Who
New Earth
Series Two, Episode One

So, with the regeneration out of the way and David Tennant suitably eased into the role, it's time for his first full day on the job.  How do we think it went?

Hmm.  Well, what's wrong with it isn't his fault.  New Earth is largely an excuse to give Tennant's acting skills a quick workout, and mission accomplished there: he's funny, he's compassionate, he's angry, often in rapid succession.  Not that you'd need much more convincing after The Christmas Invasion, but... yep.  He's good.

"Okay Dave, now emote with the big plastic head-in-a-jar."
"Like this, you mean?"
*everyone cries*
And it's a field day for Billie Piper.  The bodyswapping stuff is a good excuse for her to show off, but she's plenty impressive when she's Rose.  Led into a dark corridor by a strange man, she'll follow if it means getting some answers, but the first thing she does is pick up a blunt object.  Nice.

It's a tad disappointing that it's set shortly after The End Of The World, which makes everything a bit familiar and safe, but then that's probably to help us accept Tennant as the same man.  (We didn't need the help, but never mind.)  Nicely contrasting this, the script has its mind on newness and change, which makes a good backdrop for a new Doctor.  It's all very stylish, particularly the super-cool opening scene, and there's some great CGI (New New York) and even better prosthetics (the cat-nurses).  It all looks good.  (Speaking of which, the Doctor's new outfit is one of the best ever.  Stylish and a bit eclectic, but normal enough to blend in?  Nailed it.)  Oh, and the guest cast are superb.  Doña Croll is chilling as Matron Casp, and Anna Hope always draws my attention as Novice Hame: a small role, bubbling over with compassion and humanity.  Well, for a cat.

The problem, and it's a dealbreaker, is the tone.  This is camp, frothy stuff, even less likely to frighten the horses than last year's series opener.  Not something I'm thrilled about, but fair enough.  Except it also tries to be a moving character study, and make a serious moral point about human rights.  Sorry, what was that?  I couldn't hear you over all the comedy music.

Let's start with the character study.  Cassandra's back.  Um... yay?  Not that Zoe Wanamaker isn't funny, but there's really nothing more to say about a character who's so two-dimensional she's literally two-dimensional.  So, Step 1: Have other characters bodyswap with her, to make the act seem fresh.  This is not advisable, as it means losing Zoe Wanamaker (without whom, there's no Cassandra), and it lets David and Billie camp it up, which is at best a mixed blessing.

Step 2: Completely rewrite her personality.  All of a sudden, Cassandra wants to stop being a trampoline with a face and steal someone else's body.  Hey, power to her, it must suck being a flap of skin with eyes and a mouth... but isn't this what she wanted?  What's changed?  Character development's great, but this is just twisting her 180 degrees for no reason.

"Okay Zoe, now make us sympathise with you."
"Like this, you mean?"
*everyone stares unsympathetically*
And then there's her "plan".  Cassandra's heard of a dark secret lurking behind the miraculous cat-nurses, and she's hoping to extort some cash out of it.  Somehow.  As well as being a big step down from her last caper, which involved the destruction of a whole planet, that's her genius plan?  Threaten a bunch of apparently amoral monsters?  When it turns out that yes, they are growing humans as disease-incubators, and yes, they'd rather kill her than pay up, her next brilliant idea is to unleash the zombies and run for it.  When did her IQ plummet?  Although saying that, her brain is in a jar in another room...  (Which might explain why she's obsessed with Rose having killed her last time, even though the Doctor dunnit.)

Sadly, we're not done with her yet.  After inhabiting one of the diseased humans for a few seconds, she suddenly feels remorse and wants to become a better person.  Ye-eah.  And just as you're reeling from this highly unlikely bit of soul-searching, the Doctor takes her back in time (in servant Chip's body) to tell her younger self that she's beautiful.  Which says... something about... vanity, I think?  Or is it meant to do something other than encourage her total self-obsession?  No, I've no idea either.

Cassandra was a one-note character to begin with, and what's more, revelled in it.  Adding further dimensions to her is both unconvincing and pointless, as it's precisely her shallowness that endeared her to people in the first place.  The whole thing's doomed from the outset.

Which brings us to the other really stupid bit: the moral horror.  Humans are being grown, pumped full of Every Disease Ever, and used to research the cures.  Oh, the humanity!  Except they're not human, or not sentient anyway, until now.  Yes, it's wrong to keep living, thinking humans in confinement for the betterment of others, but what about when they were brainless lumps of skin and bone?  The Doctor's not mad that they're waking up, he's mad at the whole thing.  I'm guessing Russell T Davies isn't a big fan of stem cell research, then.  (And if he's trying to make a point about animal testing, it's rather muddied since it's only human testing the Doctor's got a problem with.  If the cat-nurses were getting their cures from cats, would he still have a problem?  (Not that I'm saying he shouldn't, but it's a thorny issue and it deserved more than a cursory This Is Wrong.))

The Doctor condemns the whole enterprise without a second thought, but there's more to it.  For starters, it has enabled cures for every conceivable disease.  Are they going to get rid of every bit of data they've learned?  Because if not, they're still profiting from it, which makes it rather hard to condemn the research.  You can't have it both ways.

A mindless problem means a mindless solution, so the Doctor determines A) that all the zombies want is to touch and be touched (even though there's nothing preventing them from touching each other, and they obviously do), and B) they can be cured of Every Disease Ever by squirting them simultaneously with Every Cure Ever.  (But then, since Every Disease Ever just amounts to Lots Of Boils, it's probably not that hard.)  This mega-cure can be passed on by touching, because yay touching, and I think my brain just dribbled out of my ears.

There are episodes made entirely of froth, and episodes of substance.  Both have merit, but it's almost impossible to mix them successfully.  This one, with characters nearly saying swearwords and making jokes about chavs, hasn't got a hope.  You should stick to what you're good at.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

All I Want For Christmas

Doctor Who
The Christmas Invasion
2005 Christmas Special

A Doctor Who Christmas Special.  How mad is that?  For the show to get one in its first year back must have been a huge boost for the people making it.  On top of which, it became a tradition, and we're now approaching eight years of Christmas with Doctor Who.  Not an achievement to sniff at.

All the same, you don't expect very much from a Christmas Special.  The audience are largely in festive spirits i.e., they're a bit drunk so they're hardly in the mood to concentrate.  Most shows consequently churn out exactly the same as usual, minus a few IQ points but with added tinsel.  (Apart from Eastenders, which inexplicably sees Christmas the way Hollyoaks sees the watershed.)  The Christmas Invasion could easily have been a mindless, Christmassy victory lap, and most people wouldn't have minded.  Or quite possibly, noticed.

Well, you could do that.  Or you could be like the Children In Need Special, which opted out of daft Pudsey hijinks for something fans would actually benefit from seeing.  Christmas?  Check.  Special?  Thank goodness, you can check that as well.

Oddly, the Doctor's hair continues to regenerate for several minutes.
As the first full-length episode to feature David Tennant, it's obviously important, but there's more going on here than just the new guy.  Rose is still coming to terms with the Doctor's transformation.  She has no idea if she can trust this new bloke, or if the past few months of her life even amount to anything now the Doctor, as she knows him, is gone.  (Even now, though, she manages a sliver of unlikeability: she's sad not that the Doctor's dead, but that "he left me".  How very dare he!)  As for the new guy, we only see him in short bursts.  And quite right.  We've got a whole new series to get to know him: this is just a tease to let us know the Doctor has landed.

Billie Piper's more than able to pick up the slack.  Rose copes by using what she's learned, immediately noticing some disguised robots and a suspicious Christmas tree that everyone else missed, and parroting the Doctor's "I am talking!" speech to intimidate some aliens.  It's legitimate character growth, mixed in with some not-uncalled-for celebration of the past year.  Well, it's Christmas, so why not?

Mickey has settled into his role as Rose's standby, and he's developed a cheery callousness about it, ruthlessly taking the, er, mickey out of her tendency to go on and on about life in the TARDIS.  Jackie's grown as well, being happy enough to look after the Doctor if it means Rose coming home for the day.  Anyway, she doesn't seem to hate him any more.  Now his face has changed, it's as if the man she mistrusted is gone.  Camilla Coduri bounces hilariously off of David Tennant, instantly developing a rapport that couldn't have existed with Eccleston.  (Of course, it helps that David Tennant is a more comedic actor, and that the Doctor is now poorly and in a dressing gown.  He's 60% cuddlier just to look at.)

Daleks are so last year.
The episode is more about the Doctor's effect on others than the man himself.  His absence is sorely felt, particularly when Harriet Jones (now Prime Minister) appeals directly to him on television.  But his presence is part of the problem, as it's his regeneration that draws the Pilot Fish, i.e. Robot Santas and a killer Christmas tree.  It's a great idea to use the regeneration in the plot, and I've got to say, fantastic monsters.  The Santas are creepy enough, especially when Rose catches one looking at her moments before they attack.  But the tree?  Amazing.  It encapsulates all the insanity Rose has come to expect from travelling with the Doctor, and obviously it's mega Christmassy, all of which adds up to the perfect slightly-more-ridiculous-than-usual gag they can only get away with in a celebratory episode.

It's a pity they drop the regeneration-as-energy-source idea almost immediately.  It seems too good to throw out, as do the Pilot Fish, but when the real baddies arrive they're not remotely interested in the Doctor or his weird yellow gases, which makes all the earlier stuff seem pointless.  It's like Russell T Davies came up with the tree and the Santas and the steal-his-regeneration story, noticed he had about ten minutes' worth of plot, then came up with the Sycorax and forgot to really tie it all together.

Anyway, following a few skirmishes and numerous hasty cover-ups, Earth has its first real contact with aliens, which is a story big enough to warrant that "Special" label.  (As is a third of the population standing precariously on rooftops a brilliantly eerie threat.)  The Sycorax are stock alien warriors, complete with a distaste for humans and the odd reference to Independence Day.  But there are some fun touches, like their heads looking almost as weird as their helmets, and their capper to the old "I know who you are" Harriet Jones gag.  Let's face it, they're only here to be swiftly got rid of by the new Doctor, but they make an impression.

Oh yeah, him.  The length of a full episode goes by before he's properly up and about, at which point you're chomping at the bit to see him.  It's a smart way to pace the action, raising the anticipation until a few squeezes of the sonic screwdriver just won't do.  The Doctor's not just going to win.  He's going to win with a swordfight.  (Admittedly not brilliantly shot, but we can't have everything.)

Yeah, I get it, sometimes the weather is nice in Wales.
Maybe point the camera at the swordfight, too?
When it finally arrives, his big scene doesn't disappoint.  It's great watching him tease out his new personality, and the results are immediate: Doctor Nine would have found someone else to pick up the sword.  He also wouldn't quote The Lion King.  This guy's talkier, friendler, funnier, and now that Time War angst is out of his system he's happy being Earth's champion, rather than just the guy encouraging others to do the dirty work.  It's a refreshing change.

And what about Christmas dinner?  This Doctor's happy to pull crackers with Rose and Jackie, sit down and watch telly, and generally "do domestic" in complete contrast to his previous self.  That's nice, and more importantly different, but it does chip away at the alienness that's supposed to come as standard.  Swings and roundabouts; some people prefer him acting more human.  It certainly makes for more comfortable viewing.  For now, it's Christmas, so fair enough.

It's not all about ringing the changes.  When Harriet Jones destroys the fleeing Sycorax ship, the Doctor's anger is pure Nine.  I'm not so keen on this bit: it's all well and good telling Harriet off, but what was to stop the Sycorax coming back with their armada?  Their leader was as honourable as the rest of them, and he quite happily went back on his word.  In any case, the Doctor kills him, claiming he's a "No second chances" kind of man.  What, so Harriet's not allowed to be a No Second Chances woman?  Harriet's point, however horrible it is, stands, and deep in the Doctor's brain I'm betting he's glad someone else took the plunge.  New man, same old hypocrite, unfortunately.

Despite a few nagging swings and roundabouts, The Christmas Invasion is a triumph.  It's big, but still has its eye on the important thing, character development.  It's silly, but just a little bit, and anyway it's Christmas so there had to be some silly in there.  It even has that unshakeable novelty that comes with a Doctor's first episode, which guarantees it rewatch value pretty much forever.  Jingle bell rock, indeed.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Pudsey Cutaway

Doctor Who
2005 Children In Need Special

Okay, so Doctor Who's a huge success, and it's getting a Christmas Special.  Hooray!  Before that, though, there's a scene for Children In Need.  Excellent!  There's no point getting your hopes up: it'll just be a bit of fun to raise money.  Cross your fingers and it might not involve the cast of Eastenders.

Well, yeah, you could do that.  Or you could give us the first six minutes of a brand new Doctor.  That's six minutes of completely unmissable Doctor Who.  And they did it for free!

Somehow, Tennant + Eccleston's costume = early Lennon.
There's obviously no plot to speak of, which is nice as there's no plot for there to be any holes in.  It's pure character development: Rose, echoing the younger members of the audience, isn't sure if this man truly is the Doctor.  Fair enough.  David Tennant proves that he is.  What's not to love?

He's immediately funnier than Eccleston.  "I... have got... a mole!"  And more frantic: the craziness is typical for a newly-regenerated Doctor, and Tennant does it without forcing it.  The script handles the what-the-hell-just-happenedness of a regeneration with a beautifully crafted back-and-forth, and there isn't a word out of place.

Tennant's got a lot to do here, from silly to loveable to downright weird.  His lunatic expression as he says "Faster!  Let's open those engines!" is almost scary.  Best of all, though, is the moment where he calms down, and recalls their first meeting.  The way he whispers, that little thing he does with his eyes, the way he says "Run."  He dances between fizzing excitement and magnetic Doctorliness with ease.  Yep, he's the Doctor all right.

Billie Piper's great, too.  Her mistrust makes perfect sense, and it's essential for the audience.  It's a bit eh guessing the Doctor might randomly be a Slitheen – Slitheen, Slitheen, Slitheen, don't forget about the Slitheen! – but Rose was never the brightest bulb.

And, we're done.  It's tiny.  It's perfect.  Tick.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

No More Mr Nine Guy

Doctor Who
Bad Wolf and The Parting Of The Ways
Series One, Episodes Twelve and Thirteen

Talk about a game of two halves.  The Series One finale starts out as a sequel to The Long Game, and to be honest it's not much of an improvement.  By the end, though, things have escalated to epic proportions.  The second episode juggles emotional highs as if they were satsumas, and ends the Ninth Doctor's brief era in triumph.  Blimey.  Where did that come from?

Surprise! It's not as crap as it looks!
First, this sequel business.  Finding out The Long Game was only there to set up this situation might explain why it contained barely enough incident to fill a Previously montage, but does knowing the grand plan suddenly make it a good episode?  Nope.  It just turns a seemingly unfortunate failure into a deliberate one, which is actually worse.

Onto the plot.  The Doctor, Rose and Jack find themselves teleported into Big Brother, The Weakest Link and What Not To Wear, but not as we know them.  100 years on from The Long Game, the shows are running en masse, and the losers are executed.  You'd have to be a newly-arrived alien toddler to think this was a brand new idea, and the sheer imagination fail goes all the way down.  Okay, gameshows that kill you.  Dumb idea, and we don't need to see it three times in the same episode, but it could work.  But... literally Big Brother, with the same theme music and everything?  Hundreds of thousands of years in the future, and we're still watching the same TV shows, albeit with different outcomes, with the same presenters, albeit as robots?  We're even wearing the same clothes.  Much of that isn't the case now, seven years later, let alone in the distant future.

The worst thing isn't just the total absence of imagination on the part of the writer: it's the suggestion that our feeble brains just couldn't handle anything else.  Going to the future?  Better make it all exactly the same, or our heads might explode with confusion!  Give us some credit.  (I know they do this to avoid dressing people up in tin foil and making random guesses at how technology will work, but there has to be a middle ground between that and just not doing anything at all.)

It might work if it made any kind of satirical point, but none of it adds up.  There are some shows where you don't even die, like Stars In Their Eyes (hey kids, who remembers Stars In Their Eyes?  Don't all jump at once...), where you get blinded.  Then there's the contestants: The Weakest Link bunch are terrified, apart from one who's coldly bent on self-preservation, whereas the Big Brother morons seem to have almost no problem with any of it, acting exactly like contestants from the present day.  Meanwhile on Earth, people watch this stuff for fun, even though contestants are picked at random and anyone could be next.  Huh?  As for the Doctor opening their eyes to how this is A Bad Thing, well thanks for that, Captain Obvious.

It's not all bad.  It's fun to hit the ground running for once, and the Doctor's immediate dark suspicions that something deeper is going on nearly renders all that buffoonish Anne-droid stuff quite exciting.  (Though seriously, Anne-droid?  Y'know, some jokes take all of five seconds to come up with because they're no damn good.)  The Doctor's scenes with Lynda are a nice repeat of the Doctor-meets-companion process, and a timely reminder that there's more to the companioniverse than just Rose.  (Not that she's especially glad to hear it, and not that we can keep her while we've still got Blondie.  Still, it's perfectly valid seeing that sometimes it doesn't work out.)  Also, it's great seeing what happens when the Doctor affects history in a bad way, all of this being arguably his fault.  Shame we can't really examine what that means, but hey, the consequences are dire, so he certainly pays for it.

Can we keep he...oh, forget it.
Even so, you might as well spend the first thirty minutes doing the dishes.  Until Rose gets discintegrated which let's face it, was always going to be a highlight Bad Wolf is largely dross.  But then the Doctor gets mad, and things heat up very, very quickly.  With a big gun in hand and Jack as his loyal bulldog, he barges upstairs to get some answers.  (He's not going to use the gun, of course; it's a nice moment when he scares the staff to death, then wins them over on the spot.)  The tension is palpable, and hearing the Contoller talk of her "masters", who speak of the Doctor and fear him, is a bag of chills even if you saw the Next Time trailer the week before and already know it's the Daleks.

Eeeeeee!  Daleks!  You can forget about the friendly one we met earlier this series; these guys are the real deal.  If anything, they're crazier and more dangerous than the ones us fustery old fans are used to.  They've got religion, thanks to their power-mad Emporer, and it's bliss watching them rant, wobble and exterminate everything in sight.  That's more like it, boys.

We end on a cliffhanger that forgoes scary for awesome.  The Doctor's going to get Rose out of their clutches and then kill 'em all over again.  It's been building to this.  All that Time War angst, that guilt, comes volcanically to the surface.  Oh yes.

But the next episode isn't all Doctor Who Goes To War.  The Parting Of The Ways does the big stuff you've been waiting for, and it does all that really well, but it's the smaller character moments that make it a real knock-out.  Little bits like "I never doubted you." "I did", and the way the Doctor snaps between showboating for the Daleks, and resting his head against the TARDIS doors in probable defeat.  Never mind the camp satire, the bad jokes and the stupid plot handwaving.  It's little conversations and moments Russell T Davies does best, and this one's full of them.

There's gobs of stuff about Rose and the Doctor, and their relationship.  Just before he sends her (unwillingly) to safety, the Doctor beams at her refusal to suggest simply legging it in the TARDIS.  Rose certainly ain't perfect, but at last we've laid bare what the Doctor actually likes about her: the courage to help people, no matter what, something she's learned from him.  Ignoring all her less flattering aspects (and he does), she's living proof that he's doing good.  Of course there's other stuff, like how terribly nice it is for him to feel needed, but that has to end some time.  He sends her away, knowing he's probably not going to make it and that if she survives, he'll have done something right.  This whole sequence, from the Doctor's knowing looks to the emergency hologram telling Rose to lead a good life, works brilliantly.

"Oh, TARDIS, I'll miss you.  That and what's-her-face."
Back home, she's forced to re-evaluate her commitment to the Doctor.  It's wonderfully wrong being stuck in a cafe eating chips while the Doctor faces certain death in the future.  Of course, most people wouldn't see it that way "That's years off", according to Jackie but Rose has learned to see time differently, and this conversation puts that marvellously into perspective.  It shows how she's grown apart from everything she knows, and does it with far more grace than the general smugness she radiates in other episodes.

Also great?  Rose using her experiences, specifically getting to meet her dad, to convince Jackie that the Doctor's worth saving.  It's a satisfying dollop of continuity, and it's great to see Jackie consider things from more than one point of view.  Mickey's got a lot to work with too, silently raging at Rose's lofty ambitions but ultimately helping her anyway, because it'll make her happy.  It's just a shame these two had to start out completely one-dimensional to underscore how far they've come.  (Similar applies to Captain Jack, although he hasn't grown so much as picked one of his random attributes, and stuck to it.)

Not so great, though, all that stuff about ripping the TARDIS open.  Yes, it vaguely ties in with the end of Boom Town, and I know I just said I like a bit of continuity, but heartening as it is seeing Mickey and Jackie working together to help the Doctor, what difference is a tow truck going to make to an ancient spaceship?  What's holding it together, Cellotape?  Surely Rose can't hope to gain much from transforming into a foetus, and that's all she's seen the heart of the TARDIS actually do.  Then, after a lot of time spent vaguely wondering what Bad Wolf means, it turns out it means Really Silly Thing That Makes No Sense.

What is the Bad Wolf?  The time vortex, apparently.  Or is it the TARDIS?  God knows.  Is it God?  Apparently it's in the Doctor's head all the time, although that doesn't seem likely since having the Bad Wolf in his head immediately kills him.  Sending the words through time seems like a neat idea, but they don't have anything specific to do with Rose's rescue plan, so you've got to wonder how much they really help.  "Of course!  I can try to save the Doctor!  Now all I need to do is come up with a way to actually do that!"

It gives Rose God-powers to make the Daleks go away, simple as that.  How much this works or annoys you depends on you.  Is it a cheat?  Probably, since what little we know of the TARDIS doesn't suggest it's possible.  But it's intended more as an emotional climax than a plot-point and... okay, I'm not even convincing myself here.  It's stupid, I agree.  And to top it off, after all that splendid work fleshing out their relationship, Eccleston has to say "I think you need a Doctor"?  Ugh.  It's even worse than "Anne-droid".

This makes Colin Baker falling off his
exercise bike look like complete pants!
There's an old adage: wow them in the end, and you've got a hit.  This one does.  Never mind all that dumb stuff could there be a more amazing ending than this regeneration?  What with his Time War Trauma, the Doctor's never been more in need of a clean slate, and the old gimmick of changing the lead actor allows for a brilliant conclusion to his story.  The whole sequence is unforgettable: the Doctor's reaction is beautifully varied, the script handles it with sensitivity and wonder, and the special effect is none too shabby either.  It's quite possibly the Best Regeneration Ever.

The Doctor's on top form throughout, facing the Daleks en masse, making that tough decision about Rose, and finally realising he can't go through it all again.  He'd rather be defeated than sacrifice another species.  (This is still a bit muddled, as Earth has by this point been bombed to pieces by Daleks, so it wouldn't make much difference if he did wipe out humans and Daleks alike.  But, hey, the point stands: he's had enough.)  We've only known him for thirteen episodes, but Doctor No. 9 goes out with a bang.  Doctor #10, in all of ten seconds, arrives with one.

Out of the ashes of a mostly-rubbish first episode, and despite some total idiocy in the execution, The Parting Of The Ways somehow leaves me satisfied every time I see it.  It's grand in the action stakes, sublime in its character beats, and well, two out of three isn't anything to sniff at.  Not everything gets tied up Earth is left a depopulated bombsite, and for all his noble do-goodiness, Jack is unceremoniously stuck there – but it ends on a spectacular note, and that's what I'd hoped for.  Goodbye, Big-Ears.  I'll miss you.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Morally Challenged

Doctor Who
Boom Town
Series One, Episode Eleven

I remember seeing this one advertised shortly before it aired.  It promised the return of "an old enemy".  Call me naive; I expected someone from further back than, say, six episodes ago.  The Slitheen again?  Really?

When the TARDIS parks to refuel in Cardiff Bay, leaving Rose free to pal about with Mickey, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was the kind of stuff that should go between episodes, and not be the subject of them.  Rose even describes some impressive-sounding adventures that happened off-screen.  Wait, so you get worlds made of glass and we get Cardiff Bay, or at a push, London?  Look, by all means set the show's horizons by what the budget can do, that's the way it has to be after all, but don't pretend there's other less crap-looking stuff going on as well.  It just means we wish we could see that stuff instead.

"She's going to blow up Cardiff, and kill millions."
Oh no, she isn't!
Oh well, better set your expectations to frothy, as the gang joke, flirt, go for lunch and generally behave as annoyingly as possible.  It's all in the name of character development, of a sort: Mickey is feeling increasingly alienated by Rose and the Doctor, and now Captain Jack has joined the fold, they've gone from a weird twosome to a nauseating threesome.  I'm just not sure about this.  How can you not side with Mickey?  Setting aside how repellantly smug they all are, viewing them from the outside in the first place seems like a silly idea, since they're meant to be the guys we tune in to watch.  Even when it turns out there's a Slitheen in their midst, they go to work like the cast of a Christmas panto.  Couldn't they take things just a little bit seriously?

It all tries a bit too hard to make us laugh, especially when there's quite grim stuff under the surface.  For all his outsider blues, Mickey's back on the comedy pratfalls, tripping over a trolley and getting his foot stuck in a bucket.  When they finally catch Margaret, who murdered someone at the start of the episode and plans to nuke Cardiff (and then the world, mua-ha-ha) later on, we go straight to the Doctor eye-rolling when Rose can't pronounce Raxacoricofallapatorius.  This isn't black comedy, it's pure farce with ill-fitting black bits.

With the Mickey stuff having run out of steam for now, we settle down to the plot.  Margaret Blaine aka Blon Slitheen is still at large, having murdered her way to being Mayor of Cardiff.  (Without Harriet Jones or anyone else noticing, apparently.)  The Doctor's not having any of that, so he effortlessly scoops her up using the sonic screwdriver to disrupt her teleporter.  (He did something similar in The End Of The World, only there was an explanation for it then.  Also, he discovers Margaret's secret weapon hidden in a model of Cardiff for no reason at all.  Just a cursory "Oh, but she's clever!" doesn't explain how he knows it's there.  Urgh you can do the handwavy bit to make sense of a complicated explanationey bit, but you do need both or it's just cheating.)  Well, that was easy.  All that's left now is taking her home to face the music.

All of a sudden, it's moral dilemma time.  Take her home and she'll get the death penalty.  But let her go and she'll start all over again.  What to do?  (We'll have to forgo the possibility of taking her somewhere that won't execute her, because they sure do.)  The whole cut-price-episode approach might work if we're focussed on a puzzle at the heart of it.  It has to work, though.  Moral dilemmas aren't just about asking tough questions, you also have to stick the landing and answer them in a way that says something.  This "dilemma" just isn't a tough one, whichever way you cut it.

"It's not my fault, that I'm, so eee-vil.
It's society.  Society."
I might be missing something here, but taking her home seems like a pretty good idea.  Yes, it's a shame she'll die as a result.  It's also a shame she killed all those people, and had loads of fun doing it.  She says she can change, but she can't even go the length of that conversation without trying to kill the Doctor three times.  Pull the other one, Margie.

But wait, there's more: the Doctor's got to physically take her to her doom, which in her book is the same as pulling the trigger.  Well, it isn't.  She made this happen, there are going to be consequences, and here they are.  "Which makes you better than me how, exactly?" asks Margaret.  How about the obvious: he's not murdering people for profit or for fun, and nor is he the one setting the death sentence.  Next stupid question?

Can he look her in the eye and still do it?  Er, probably, yeah.  This is the guy who covered the Nestenes in anti-plastic, and brought about Cassandra's, the Jagraffess's and oh yeah, the Slitheen's explodey deaths.  Chucking one murderous bastard to her peers won't make him bat an eyelid, let alone lose his nerve.  Want to tickle the Doctor's sympathy bone?  Simple: don't get your kicks from killing people.

Eventually the "dilemma" runs out of steam, so it turns out Margaret was just biding her time (and wasting ours) so she could surf out of there, leaving devastation behind her.  Like the Gelth going all world-conquery in The Unquiet Dead, this makes any deathly reaction from the Doctor totally justifiable.  But wait, there's still more: in an act of random magic that's backed up by nothing, the TARDIS turns Margaret into an egg so she can start her life all over again.  Setting aside the fact that by this point there's no longer a moral dilemma to resolve (as Margaret's made it clear she's going to kill everyone anyway, because evil), how massively, massively rubbish is that?  Has there been any hint of this magic power before?  Is it ever likely to happen again?  Nope.  There's a phrase for this kind of thing, and it rhymes with beus ex nachina.  Search your feelings, you know it to be true.

Next Time: Let's De-Age Hitler!
Does any of it work?  Well, Annette Badland is fantastic, and Margaret gets in a few good points during those juicy (albeit pointless) dinner scenes.  She's right that the Doctor isn't used to waiting around like this, even if she is way off about his apparent blood lust.  She's also partly right to draw parallels about occasionally letting her potential victims go.  Well, the Doctor does kill people, albeit for different reasons, and it's nice to acknowledge that.  It's all good exercise for Christopher Eccleston, showcasing the Doctor's sympathy (with a last meal) and darkness (steadfastly refusing to let her go, even if the execution's really going to hurt), quite a potent Doctorly mix.  Once all that ghastly Team TARDIS stuff is out of the way, it's another strong one for Eccles.

And ditto for Noel Clarke.  Aside from "hilariously" tripping over things, Mickey's story is brilliant, even poignant.  Shame it reflect so badly on Rose.  It turns out he's desperately miserable waiting for her all the time, and has another semi-girlfriend to make up for it.  Rose mocks him for this, despite her own wandering libido.  So you've got Mickey begging Rose to stay, and Rose stopping by Cardiff for a roll in the hay before going right back to the smug single life.  Approximately one person emerges from this with our sympathies, and it isn't the one we're stuck with on a weekly basis.  This was a good idea why, exactly?

As for Jack, John Barrowman seems to be on cloud nine, and that's nice for him, but he doesn't impact on the story at all.  Can we send him back?  (Perhaps we can trade the pair of them in for Nancy and Harriet.)

With its recycled baddie, set-adjascent locations and Abra Cadabra solution, Boom Town feels like something they knocked together to fill space.  Points for trying something new there, but it'd be a lot nicer if it worked.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Ballroom Blitz

Doctor Who
The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances
Series One, Episodes Nine and Ten

Doctor Who is one of those shows that could, in theory, be anything.  It can be funny, serious, futuristic, medieval... you name it.  But one thing has been consistent through the years: Doctor Who is scary.

"Act terrifying. For God's sake, swim or something."
Fans still talk in hushed tones about The One With The Yeti In The Underground, or The One With The Giant Maggots.  The One With The Sea Devils left me terrified of going to the beach for quite some time.  And now we have The One With The Gas Mask Zombies.  How good are they?  Run, hide, and stay hidden.  They are terrifying.

What's so scary about them?  Well, gas masks are scary just to look at.  But then there's the utter mindlessness of them, and the fear of losing your own mind.  And fear of disease: one touch and you're like them.  Their leader, the Empty Child himself, is creepy as hell.  As innumerable horror movies have shown, it's surprisingly easy to scare people with children acting just a little bit left of normal, and all that "Muuuuummy" stuff is easily spinechilling.  The best bit, though?  The change.  Nothing can stop it.  The victim's marbles slowly disappear, they start to talk like a six-year-old until they choke, something forces its way up their throat, flesh stretches and bones begin to crunch...  Ohgodohgodohgod.  Sleep well, kiddiewinks!

As a backdrop, we have the London Blitz, where a midnight stroll could get you killed even without the monsters.  It's one of the most fascinating periods in British history, as terrifying as it is weirdly halcyon, and Steven Moffat captures both without getting too wrapped up in either.  There's still a hint of saccharine, particularly in the Doctor's history-fudging "lion vs. mouse" speech, that boils the Second World War down to a cutesy David and Goliath grudge match between Britain and Germany.  (It's not quite that simple, Doc.)  But the plight of Nancy, a scrawny girl looking after a rabble of evacuees, is a poignant and very real one.  Florence Hoath is fantastic, bouncing off Christopher Eccleston with the effortless spark of a travel-weary Doctor Who companion.  It's a shame we won't see her again; the character's steely determination feels hard won and, again, very genuine.

Can we keep her? And Harriet Jones, while you're at it.
Then there's Dr Constantine, pottering around an empty hospital so he can look after the gas mask creatures, despite an obvious danger to himself.  A knockout guest performance from Richard Wilson, he packs so much dignified emotion into his brief scenes that when the inevitable occurs, and brutally, it carries enormous weight.

Good thing Christopher Eccleston's on fine form, or you'd fail to notice him next to these two.  His reaction to Constantine's fate is a moment of silent brilliance, and his empathy with his and Nancy's family losses speaks volumes about the character's history.  Then there's his behaviour with the Child, hopping from genuine sympathy (because it's just a kid) to no-nonsense cynicism (because it's harming people).  Not for the first time, it's a Doctorfest, and Eccleston does it brilliantly.  Definite kudos to Steven Moffat, a lifelong Who fan (and the guy behind the brilliant Comic Relief spoof, The Curse Of Fatal Death), who clearly has a great handle on the character.  By this point, so has Eccleston.

Of course, Rose needs something to do as well, so we have Captain Jack Harkness (ahem), a flashy futuristic con-man who sweeps her off her feet all over again.  It's a little bit rich having her tire of the Doctor's not-especially-sci-fi kookiness already, leaving Jack free to dazzle her with magic nanobots and an invisible spaceship.  Still, it's for a good cause.  Jack, the impossibly perfect anti-hero, is a lot of the things you might expect from a time-travelling adventurer, but don't get in the Doctor.  However, he's noticeably lacking (depending on the scene you're watching) the Doctor's conscience, forethought and common sense.  It's like what Russell T Davies tried to do for companions in Adam: someone getting the business of time travel utterly wrong.  This time, it (mostly) works.

Mind you, Jack's got a long way to go before he resembles a rounded character.  With his effortless tech skills, brilliant lying skills, pansexuality, memory loss, criminal ambition and noble quest for self-discovery and personal justice, he's more a shopping list than a person.  John Barrowman's charming and fun enough to make it work, certainly once he falls in line as part of the Doctor's entourage, but for now it's tough seeing past the forced corniness and finding anything at all underneath.  (I can't get too worked up about it knowing we'll get the same thing later, only much worse, in River Song.  By comparison, Jack is humble and downright likeable.  But that's future-episode-knowledge.  Spoilers!)

So how does this stack up against the previous two-parter?  The action seems more evenly paced than in Aliens Of London / World War III, and these two episodes have a marked difference in tone.  The Empty Child is dark, intriguing and terrifying.  The Doctor Dances is... well, take a look at that title.  Despite some brilliantly chilling Empty Childy goodness, and more of Nancy just being brilliant, things get decidedly fluffier as they go on.  Still really good, but going noticeably downhill, a bit.

The rivalry between the Doctor and Jack reaches a slightly crude nadir, as Moffat brandishes that cumbersome euphemism, "dancing" to distinguish and define them.  Eccleston seethes hilariously at this – a simple dismissive head shake and the way he says "He's not really a Captain, Rose" go a long way to repairing this Doctor's sense of humour – but the script can't quite let it go, flogging said euphemism until it whimpers.

"Are you my daddy?"
The effect this has on Rose, and come to think of it Rose's behaviour in general, is not exactly flattering.  Her affections dilly-dally rather too easily between the two men; it doesn't do wonders for her as a character.  What's with the alien-tech obsession, and the need for the Doctor to prove himself all of a sudden?  (You could see this as a consequence of finally meeting her dad in the previous episode.  Now the father-figure complex has worked itself out, she's open to a better offer.  But as there's no reference to this, it could just be inference on my part.  And if it is the case, it doesn't exactly tip the sympathy scales in her favour.  Perhaps Rose isn't the one who should be on the lookout for better offers...)

Soon enough Jack realises his place, and the penny finally drops.  His bargaining chip, an empty Chula warship he's put in the path of a Luftwaffe bomb, is really an ambulance full of nanogenes.  They're happily repairing people in the image of Nancy's little brother Jamie, only they're too stupid to tell the difference between gas masks and flesh.  Still, they're clever enough to install an intercom that lets him talk through anything with a speaker grille, so radios, typewriters and toy monkeys.  (I don't know either.)  They also let him command all the other empty people (gas-maskies?) in preparation for battle, because it's a battle ambulance, yet they defer to his childlike need for his mummy instead of doing any actual battling.  So, which is he: a tiny Chula warrior or a super-powered human child?  There's quite a bit of handwaving here, and it's a bit of a letdown finding out there is a rationale behind these creatures, but that it's just as mindless as they are.

All this talk of handwaving brings us neatly to the finale, when the other penny drops: Nancy is Jamie's mummy, not his sister.  The two embrace and, as the Doctor looks on rather gleefully, the nanogenes figure it out and repair everybody.  Probably intended as a calming answer to all that terror in the first episode, not to mention the cynicism that has come to define this Doctor, things end on the stickiest, literally cuddliest note possible.  It's so toothless, particularly as you realise the gask-maskies have at no point actually hurt anyone, it threatens to undermine how scary it all was in the first place.  Not the most satisfying way it could have gone, quite frankly.

Meanwhile, Jack teleports the bomb to his ship, where it can explode with just one casualty.  All very heroic, offsetting the guilt he must have been feeling for, oh, ten minutes or so, but given how little we know about Jack (besides the shopping list), it doesn't mean much emotionally.  No matter: before he can make his noble sacrifice effectively one-upping the Doctor, who needs Nancy to make the heroic choice that'll save everybody while he acts as middle-man – the Doctor rescues him, presumably winning that little contest once and for all, and dancing to celebrate.  The dancing's a tad cringeable, but it's a seriously lovely tracking shot from Jack's ship into the TARDIS, and it's cute seeing the TARDIS's answer to mood lighting.

The first episode's practically perfect: scary, clever, dazzling to look at and a riproaring good story.  It's stood up to a dozen rewatches over the years, and I still get chills from the best bits.  Part Two gets a little stuck in the Glenn Miller side of things, and before you know it you're using words like "cute" to describe something that started out as "terrifying".  This seems to imply that Doctor Who, a mad old show that can be anything, can be both.  We may have to agree to disagree on that one.